Does Bruno Latour adhere to the Strong Programme?

*** There is a more thorough description of the Strong Programme available in the Strong Programme node, the description here is cursory***

In order to answer this question, the best thing to do is outline one or the other of either the position of the Strong Programme(rs) or the position of Bruno Latour, and then to highlight either the similarities or differences between the other position.

So... I will describe the Strong Programme, and then how Latour’s approach differs from it. I will discuss here the version of the Strong Programme that was developed by David Bloor and Barry Barnes of the University of Edinburgh, though it is important to note that Mary Hesse’s version of the Programme has also been influential.

Basically the Strong Programme is a way of sociologically describing science that allows one to explain all ‘scientific’ beliefs with the same sorts of explanations. The Strong Programme can be divided into four fundamental theses or claims:

  • 1. Causal: All explanations of scientific beliefs must be causal in nature. That is, concerning the empirical conditions that enable a particular belief to come about.
  • 2. Impartiality: All explanations should be impartial with regards to the rationality or irrationality, truth or falsity, success or failure of the belief being explained.
  • 3. Symmetry: The same ‘types’ of causes should explain true/false, rational/irrational successful/failing beliefs.
  • 4. Reflexivity: It should be able to explain its own beliefs (those of the Strong Programme) with the same sorts of explanations that it gives for other beliefs.

As we can see here, there is a Strong leaning towards scientism in the Strong Programme itself. The Strong Programmers believe that what they are doing is more strongly objective than previous attempts to describe science because they approach science as scientists. They also believe that their ‘reflexivity’ thesis allows them to increase their objectivity by rooting out their own biases (aided by their impartiality thesis).

The Strong Programme’s most well known contribution to the philosophy of science is its exclusive focus on the sociological causes that lie behind scientific belief. This is what I take to be the (controversial) meaning behind their symmetry thesis, it is also where I think the Strong Programme most sharply differs from Bruno Latour’s ‘anthropological’ analyses of science. Latour often adopts the stance of an anthropologist studying science (in action).

I think the term I’ve used here (‘adopts’) hints at an important difference between his project and that of the Strong Programme. While the Strong Programme sees itself as a serious sociological endeavor (one that purports to be as ‘scientific’ as its objects of study) Bruno Latour’s ‘anthropological stance’ is just that: a stance.

He adopts this posture as a rhetorical move, both ironic and helpful in forwarding his philosophical position. So, rather than already aligning himself with the very sciences that he purports to be studying, Latour somewhat ironically adopts the stance of the anthropologist. What does this get him, (we might ask)? Well, if we consider it as a part of his argument, it gets him quite a lot.

First, it gets him in the door of the scientists’ world: he can be seen as one of them (observing, taking notes, etc.). Second, it gets him the illusion of distance from his object of study. Third, and I think this is the most interesting, and most important part of Latour, it allows him to, later, show us that this distance is, ‘in fact’, illusory.

That is, by adopting the stance an insider and that of an outsider, Latour is then able to illustrate that modernity’s ‘constructed’ boundaries between inside (subject) and outside (object) cannot cope with the situations that we do, in fact, deal with every day in science and otherwise. Thus, unlike the Strong Programme, which attempts to maintain the boundaries between science and non-science even while socializing science itself, Latour tries to show us that these boundaries are already dissolved in the very practices of ‘science’ and ‘non-science’, of ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’.

His goal is to illustrate that though we may have theorized about the separation of objects and subjects since the inception of modernity (and hence modern science and modern philosophy) this separation never really occurred, we have always-already been in the presence of hybrids, both object and subject. This is what he means when he says that we have never been modern.

(For references regarding the Strong Programme, see the The Strong Programme node, in which frankdeluxe does an excellent job of laying it out critically.)
A good Latour reference (touching on 'regular' philosophy as well as philosophy of science...):
Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, translated from the French by Catherine Porter (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1993).

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